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Monday, December 19, 2011


the least interesting in a cast of uninteresting characters

Yesterday's film was made in Estonia, Sugisball. It has an umlaut over the u, for whatever that tells someone who knows the language. I had seen some tourist photographs of the old part of Tallinn, the Estonian capital located directly south of Helsinki, across the Gulf of Finland that runs from the Baltic Sea to St Petersburg. What I saw of Tallinn in the film suggested Tirane, Albania, or Belgrade in what is now Serbia, in Soviet times Yugoslavia. I thought of Romanian films I'd seen of Ceaosescu times in Bucharest. I thought of my train ride behind the Iron Curtain in 1971, from Trieste through Belgrade and Sofia into Greece through Thessaloniki. Big high-rise apartment buildings made of concrete, all of them exactly alike, everywhere around Belgrade. It looked like hundreds of them. Evidently that's where everybody lives who is not a party official, and probably some of them from the lower rungs of the party ladder. I suppose my friend Lucas Carpenter, whose mother came from the Ukraine, sees these concrete high-rises all over Kiev approaching the airport by plane, visiting the relatives of his mother's family.

I specifically recall approaching Belgrade by train, seeing rows and rows of these apartment buildings made of concrete, all exactly alike. They were interesting architecturally because they were devoid of aesthetic consideration. It was disheartening to see so many people living like that. I remember someone I knew who lived in New York City several years ago, John Jones, originally from Thomasville, Georgia. He said of all the new high-rise apartment buildings going up in New York back in the Sixties, "tomorrow's slums." And they indeed became that. I think of the suburbs of American cities that have apartment complexes in a great network of streets, all buildings the same color, the same architecture exactly. They look like computer chips from the air. I think of it as Soviet housing. Like flying low over New Jersey on the way into a New York airport makes me feel sad for people living in a seemingly endless, to the horizon, complex of houses and streets, driveways and cars under a New York City flight path. I marvel that at least some of those people live in such places by choice.

The movie, Sugisball (Autumn Ball), released in 2007, evidently takes place in Soviet times. Those concrete high-rise apartment buildings looked so depressing I couldn't help but think of Albania. In places like the train station in Tirane, gypsies wash their clothes in the public toilets. Tallinn in Estonia looked that kind of depressed, to my eye. I went into the movie with a curiosity to see how Estonians live in this time, expecting a culture somewhat Scandinavian, but it was not at all. It was Soviet despair everywhere you looked. The people in the story were under the deadening boot heel of the Soviet period. The characters were all twenty-somethings, people who evidently all lived in one of the apartment buildings. They were Eastern Europeans under Soviet control more than they were Scandinavian. To think of Estonia as Scandinavian is as far off the beam as thinking Morocco European.

The Estonian characters all seemed like people who in this country would be called dorks, nerdy people who don't quite get it, whatever it is. I'm meaning the actors themselves as well as the roles they were playing. Absence of sophistication in film making, I couldn't decide if it was by intent or not. It held my interest for two hours trying to figure out what was going on, right up to the end. The summary that is printed on the envelope for the disc from netflix calls it a "collection of lost souls who  bleakly face the future while reaching blindly for some form of connection." That states what I saw very well. Evidently it is a vision and a comment on contemporary life in Tallinn. Director's name is Veiko Ounpuu. What I saw of the Estonian people, the thread that ran through all the characters, was their spirit shut down by police state government. Corporate police state will be the same as Soviet police state or Maoist police state. Americans don't know that yet.

Possibly the film's intent was to show how dorky people become under a political system much like the one the republicans will have us in America live with. I have to confess that throughout this film I was seeing America in the future after republicans have the FEMA concentration camps full to overflowing, and "we the people" are afraid to say anything against the government for fear of arrest and indefinite detention, now that the Patriot Act makes it ok to "detain" American citizens without charge or sentence, "indefinitely." Every time I see a film of Soviet times, I see the future of America, though without health care, especially in the Romanian film, The Death of Mr Lazarescu. Evidently in Soviet Bucharest it was as much a social taboo to have a drink as it is in America today among Baptists. Mr Lazarescu liked a little drink every day. He had what appeared to be a heart attack. Managed to get to a hospital. Too busy there. They took him to another. The doctor won't treat him because he drinks. They take him to another, and another. Finally, he dies in a waiting room. And that was with health care. Police state without health care? We're in deep shit.

I don't mean to throw off on the film too much. The city scenes at night were film photography at its very best. Beautiful city scenes using the lights and the night. The lights at night are more interesting than the despair in daylight. I recall one scene that is worth seeing the movie again to see. The point of view is sitting in the middle of the back seat on a public transportation bus, looking up the aisle with empty seats on both sides. The bus, or trolley, is two cars joined by a swivel in the floor that makes one long bus instead of two that bends in the middle. The lights are off inside the bus. The wide angle camera sees the city lights through the windows on both sides, like we'd see it sitting in that spot. It was beautiful seeing the city lights through all the windows along both sides. Then the lights inside the bus came on that looked like green fluorescent, and we rode awhile seeing only the interior with no passengers. It was among the most beautiful moments I've seen on film. It brought to mind the unforgettable final scene in Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, The Unconsoled. I came away from the film feeling a degree of sorrow for the Estonian people with the suffocating years of Soviet occupation in their recent history. It's the same feeling I get from other films I've seen from behind Soviet lines.

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